To be a slave was to be held in the most abject of conditions. As Old English law codes make clear, slaves could be treated like animals: branded or castrated as a matter of routine and punished by mutilation or death; stoned to death by other slaves if they were male, burned to death if they were female. ‘I go out at daybreak, goading the oxen to the field, and I join them to the plough; there is not a winter so harsh that I dare not lurk at home for fear of my master.’ So begins a famous passage written by Aelfric, a late tenth-century abbot of Eynsham, imagining the pains of an unfree ploughman. ‘Throughout the whole day I must plough a full acre or more ... I must fill the stall of the oxen with hay and supply them with water and carry their dung outside. Oh, oh, the work is hard. Yes, the work is hard, because I am not free.’Share
This passage – the only one in the surviving corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature to imagine life from a slave’s perspective – has given rise to the notion that the bulk of slaves were men and engaged in heavy agricultural work, such as ploughing. It is a skewed impression, reinforced by the prevalence of ploughmen recorded in Domesday Book. In fact, as other evidence makes clear, slaves might fill any number of functions: we find them occurring, for example, as cooks, weavers, millers and even priests. What’s more, a good many of them, perhaps even the majority, were women, kept in some cases as domestic servants or dairy maids, but also in many instances as concubines – the kind of slavery, in other words, that we tend to associate more readily with the harems of the Middle East in the Early Modern period rather than with England in the early Middle Ages. William of Malmesbury believed that the slave-traders of Bristol fornicated with their female captives before selling them on and it is probably significant in this regard that he emphasises their youth and beauty. Elsewhere he wrote about the wife of Earl Godwine (d.1053), who was said ‘to buy parties of slaves in England and ship them back to Denmark, young girls especially, whose beauty and youth would enhance their price’.